Today: April 17, 2024
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Trishna

Trishna, billed as Tess of the D’Urbervilles set in India, is a bit of a strange one.

– By Helen Coffey

Trishna, billed as
Tess of the D’Urbervilles set in India, is a bit of a strange one.
The film
sees Freida Pinto who plays the
eponymous heroine go on a journey that takes her from her small rural village
to Rajasthan to Mumbai.

For anyone who’s acquainted with Thomas Hardy’s masterful original, it all starts to get a bit
confusing about halfway through the film. In some respects, it follows the
original plot to the letter – there’s even a scene where Jay, the son of a
hotel magnate who falls for Trishna’s ‘charms’, teaches her how to whistle to
his father’s birds. However, for some bizarre reason, the decision was made to
amalgamate the two main male characters of Alec and Angel into one man – Jay. I
spent the whole film waiting for the entrance of the ‘Angel’ character,
presuming he’d arrive first when Trishna goes to work at her uncle’s factory,
then when she moves with Jay to Mumbai (a young bollywood dancer looked likely
for a while), and finally when she begins work at a hotel. It was only 15
minutes before the end that I realised “hey, they must be the same guy”: most
distracting.

Four LionsRiz Ahmed does well in the role of Jay
considering, managing to shift from arrogant hotel heir to affectionate lover
to lecherous boss. But this strange decision to make two become one poses more
problems than just messing with viewer expectations; it fundamentally undercuts
all the character motivations of the original. Tess sees Angel as her hope in
the darkness, and she only surrenders to Alec when she thinks she has lost the
one she loves forever. Alec becomes for Tess the embodiment of all her
struggles, all her troubles, the destruction of the happy life she might have
led if she had never met him – so it makes sense when she (spoiler alert) stabs
him to death. By combining the characters, the man Trishna hates is also the
man she loves. Yes, Jay begins to degrade her towards the end of the film,
asking her to strip for him, to do a lapdance for him, treating her more like
his sex slave than his equal. It still doesn’t seem enough reason for her to
run him through with a kitchen knife instead of, say, returning to stay with
friends in Mumbai.

As for Pinto herself, she is undeniably beautiful and it is
not too surprising that she would become an object of desire for a fresh-faced
young man on his first trip to India. But it is surprising that he would track
her down when she runs away after a one night stand, claiming that he “cannot
live without her” – because as far as I could tell, her looks were all she had
going for her. Pinto plays Trishna as reserved and mild-mannered, to the point
of being boring. She has no spark, no passion about her and therefore her
decision to run away with a chap without saying goodbye to her beloved family
first seems a little incongruous.

Note: there is also a lot of sex in Trishna. A LOT. I had a
very interesting conversation with a woman after the screening who said she
didn’t think it would go down well with an Indian audience – it wasn’t quite
gratuitous, but it was unnecessarily graphic at times. Perhaps it was to show
the sexual liberation of a young Indian woman, but as my fellow cinema-goer
remarked, “It had none of the subtlety of Tess
and turned into a porno halfway through.” Harsh but fair(ish).

It’s a real shame, because Trishna could have been incredible. India is an inspired choice of
back-drop for a modern retelling of Tess, with changing attitudes to sex and
evolving cultural differences between rural traditionalism and modern city life
making it the perfect setting in which to explore the themes of shame, guilt
and desperation found in the novel. But it didn’t quite hit the mark. Who
knows? With a more complex leading lady and a more faithful plotline, this
could have been a masterpiece. As it is, I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

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